It’s hard to make a movie about essentially shallow people that isn’t essentially shallow. If Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol doesn’t have a lot of depth, it may be because she’s dealing with a facile but fascinating subject: the superstars and hangers-on of the mid-1960s Warhol Factory, scenemakers who packaged themselves as glamorous, suggestive facades. The movie, like its subjects, gets by mainly on raw energy and shiny surfaces, but it has a knowing, poker-faced wit, conviction, and a risky live-wire performance by the remarkable young actress Lili Taylor.
Taylor plays Valerie Solanas, who consigned herself to history on June 3, 1968, by walking into Andy Warhol’s studio office with a .32-caliber pistol and pumping several rounds of ammunition into the artist and one of his associates. Solanas, an aspiring writer, radical feminist, part-time prostitute, and founder of the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM), had devised the SCUM Manifesto, a scabrous, funny, and insightful tract on the innate biological and creative inferiority of men.
Expecting Warhol to recognize her genius, Solanas gave him a play she had written called Up Your Ass in hopes that he would produce it. At first, Warhol tolerated her as a fringe performer in the Factory’s rotating cast of manic, fragile eccentrics. But as Warhol’s fame grew, Solanas was edged out of the circle, and the artist dismissed her as another harmless crank. She paid him for the snub.
Lili Taylor takes her cue for her performance from the punky ferocity in the SCUM Manifesto: She speaks in Lenny Bruce’s jabbing nightclub-act rhythms, and she has a ferrety, uncomfortably penetrating look that can’t stay focused for long. Taylor is one of the most consistently interesting actresses around, and she’s usually used for the unforced, open vulnerability she displayed in Dogfight, Say Anything, and Household Saints. There’s a different kind of vulnerability at work in her performance here.
As Taylor plays her, Solanas is too driven for pretense: Her anger is right there on the surface, and when somebody doesn’t take her seriously enough, she’s quick to pounce on the insult. But her pursuit of Warhol has a sad Krazy Kat quality. The movie suggests Solanas saw Warholhere played by Jared Harris as a withdrawn, otherworldly Little Princeas a soul mate similarly isolated by genius; at a Factory party, the two end up on a couch like wallflowers mashed into the same corner. In the end, she stole the one thing from him that would etch her into his memory: a piece of his fame.
The movie’s biggest drawback is that it never really gets inside Valerie Solanas’ head: As viewed from the outside, she’s like a ragamuffin version of Rupert Pupkin, the Robert DeNiro character in The King of Comedy who longs for the embrace of TV cameras and the viewers at home. We’re never sure what leads her to make the jump from writing about destroying men to actually pulling the trigger.
What the movie fails to provide in insight, though, it makes up in a careful recreation of the decadent Factory ambience. The many fine actors in supporting roles strike just the right note of exhibitionism, especially Stephen Dorff as a wispy, self-obsessed Candy Darling and Michael Imperioli as the epicene dope-fueled jester Ondine. Interestingly, the cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, shoots the Factory in cold, glaring light but surrounds Solanas in her restaurant hangout with garish pop-art colors.
It is director and coscreenwriter Harron’s grasp of the ironies involved in Solanas and Warhol’s mutually parasitic relationship, though, that makes I Shot Andy Warhol consistently interesting. Although the shooting had little to do with the political beliefs expressed in Solanas’ writing, it gave the SCUM Manifesto the weight of a revolutionary blueprint. By shooting America’s most famous dilettante, Valerie Solanas ceased to be one herself.
Over the hump
In the overlooked 1989 comedy The Tall Guy, an actor ends up cast in the world premiere of Elephant!, a musical version of The Elephant Man that climaxes with a rousing finale: “Somewhere up in heaven, there’s an angel with big ears.” As musical material goes, Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame is scarcely more promising. A deformed bell ringer who views the cruelty and hypocrisy of his fellow manwell, you don’t exactly picture straw hats and tap shoes. Had the new Disney version been shot in live action using the same songs, it would have been as unbearably icky as Elephant!a reduction of human misery and misfortune to feel-good show-tune fodder.
But it isn’t shot in live action, and the animation provides enough stylization to make The Hunchback of Notre Dame affecting instead of appalling. To make a musical of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is to make a cartoon of it anyway; making the movie a literal cartoon gives the musical numbers a needed foundation in artifice. The movie works because the animated faces, swooping camerawork, and hyperbolic Gothic exteriors match the intensity of emotion in the music and story. In its best moments, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has undeniable romantic sweep and passion, even if its operatic ambitions clash with its knock-’em-dead Broadway sensibility.
The bell ringer Quasimodo, in Disney’s version, is basically Edward Scissorhands without the tonsorial appliances, a lonely outcast more sensitive and human than the “normal” people outside Notre Dame. He’s certainly more noble than his guardian, Judge Frollo (voice of Tony Jay), a buzzard-beaked scold who fancies the gypsy girl Esmerelda (voice of Demi Moore) even as he plots to exterminate her people. With the help of the handsome, dashing guard Phoebus (voice of Kevin Kline), Quasimodo defies Frollo and the prejudice and persecution that he represents.
What seems at first an odd choice of subject matter for an animated feature is actually very astute. As soaringly voiced by Tom Hulce, Quasimodo is a figure with whom kids and adults both can empathize. Who ever entirely outgrows the feeling of being monstrous, of not belonging? There’s a horrific sequence in which Quasimodo is crowned king of fools at a festival, only in an instant to be shackled and pelted with tomatoes; the scene resembles that other primal moment of adolescent terror, the prom-night humiliation in Carrie. After that, only a sourpuss could complain about the happy ending, which brings Quasimodo into the light and incidentally liberates Paris from the shackles of oppression.
Technically, the movie is astonishing, particularly whenever mobs of computer-generated Parisians congregate on the street; down to the last individual, they’re detailed so exquisitely as to distract from the foreground. (The animators must’ve worked as extras.) The camerawork also continues to improve in Disney films. The massive Disney creative team has finally figured out that there’s no reason to adhere to dull two-shots and archaic dollies in animation: When the camera swoops from the spires of Notre Dame to the street in a heart-stopping instant, you’re seeing film technique removed from the restraints of gravity. Only the animation of Frollo seems substandardperhaps the character design is too complicated. Although his face has a lot of lines, his expressions from the front are pure Beavis & Butt-Head. Whatever the reason, a stop-motion dinosaur in a Sinbad movie walks more fluidly.
As a musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has other problems. The songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz are a vast improvement over their previous Pocahontas, which stopped up the audience’s ears with great glops of tuneless Karo syrup. And yet, apart from the marvelous opening number, I couldn’t remember a single tune when I left. (Even after five years, I can still hum a few selections from Beauty and the Beast upon command.) At worst, it’s Andrew Lloyd Wagnerbombastic pop orchestration in place of melodic invention.
More difficult are the comic-relief interludes featuring a trio of gargoyles (voices of Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, and the late Mary Wickes), whose low-comedy antics intrude upon every poignant moment like a clown barging into a wake. It’s not that they aren’t funny; it’s that they’re used too relentlessly as upliftas mood killers.
The fate of movie musicals may rest with animation. Cartoons seem to be the only way audiences will accept people suddenly bursting into song onscreen. Then again, the explanation for the simultaneous decline of movie musicals and the success of Disney films may be much more simple: Nobody is writing live-action movie musicals that are nearly as memorable as Beauty and the Beast. The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t quite up to that film’s high standard. But it comes close enough to cheer anyone who loves to leave the theater humming something other than the scenery.
Walton Goggins for Fox. Claire Danes, if you squint, for Barry.
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